Reading and Writing Skills of ABE Transition Learners - Discussion Summary - Transitions to Post-secondary Education

Reading and Writing Skills of ABE Transition Learners

Discussion Summary

Discussion Description | Guest Participants | Suggested Readings

Guest Discussion Leaders:

Cynthia Zafft, RN, MA, National College Transition Network, World Education, Inc.
Sally Gabb, MA, CAGS, Bristol Community College
Lauren Capotosto, MA, Harvard University Graduate School of Education)


Ellen Hewett, LINCS  Transition Discussion List, World Education, Inc.


Two weeks prior to the start of the discussion, moderator Ellen Hewett circulated an abstract of the upcoming discussion that included brief biographies of the guest discussion leaders Cynthia Zafft, Lauren Capotosto, and Sally Gabb, and suggestions for background readings.

Sally Gabb kicked off the discussion with three observations highlighting the enhanced reading and writing skills needed by the transition population, and Lauren Capotosto observed that many transition students tend to resemble ASRP Profiles 1, 2, and 3  in terms of their strengths and needs in the components of reading.

From this point the discussion was off and running.  By the time the moderator closed the proceedings on the evening of March 26, 31 participants and the three discussion leaders had combined to produce nearly 100 posts. In her final post, discussion leader Capotosto summarized the far-ranging nature of the discussion, "In just five days, we’ve covered assessment, word recognition, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, critical thinking skills, assistive technology, GED-college program collaborations, and more!"

John Strucker prepared this summary on behalf of the National Institute for Literacy and ASRP, and Moderator Ellen Hewett added this summary to the Transition List archives.

Topic 1: Needs of transition learners

Sally Gabb suggested that transitions educators should to "go right to the source" to find out about college skills – the colleges themselves, specifically developmental education faculty and published course syllabi.

Gabb then contrasted General Education Development (GED) preparation classes with college courses:

For the GED, instructors must emphasize reading skills and strategies that will enable students to perform well with the short readings on the tests themselves. College reading and writing assignments consist of high volume reading of longer text and writing to express what is learned from text. Reading/writing skills needed to succeed in college course work include 1) the ability to call up prior knowledge and to self monitor to insure vocabulary knowledge and connection to text, 2) the ability to skim and summarize materials, and 3) the ability to pull out and express both major concepts and information shared by authors as well as identification of point of view, bias, and intent.

Referring to how many transition learners resemble those in ASRP Profiles 1, 2, and 3, Capotosto noted:

...even the strongest transition readers, those in Profile 1, face challenges in four areas: comprehension strategies, vocabulary, grammar (meaning the ability to comprehend complicated grammar in college texts), and prior knowledge. Learners in Profiles 3 and 4 exhibited needs in academic vocabulary (words like objective, facilitate) and decoding.

Other participants highlighted the need to improve study skills, the need to develop self-regulation, and the need to improve vocabulary. 

Topic 2: Vocabulary

There was universal agreement that transition learners need to acquire more vocabulary.  Several participants, as well as Gabb and Capotosto, zeroed in on the need for transition learners to acquire more academic vocabulary.  Also referred to as Tier Two words, academic vocabulary words are those that surround and provide context for the content or subject area words.  The ASRP Website defines these words as follows:

They are used across academic disciplines—in math, science, social studies, and literature. In the sentence Plants require abundant light for the process of photosynthesis, photosynthesis is a science content word that is usually explained in the text or by the teacher. Abundant is a general, academic, or Tier Two word that is usually not explained by the text or the teacher. But if the meaning of abundant is not known, the sentence cannot be understood.

Gabb reported that at Bristol Community College, where she teaches, they also emphasize direct teaching of academic words to those ESL students who are planning to go on to college.

Topic 3: Decoding and fluency

Capotosto and Strucker noted that accurate decoding and fluent reading at an acceptable rate are problems for some transition learners.  Capotosto pointed out that sometimes slow reading simply indicates that a reader has slowed down to read for understanding. However, she argued, many transition learners read slowly as the result of "persisting challenges with word recognition and decoding."  She summarized her concerns as follows:

For many students, a slightly slower reading speed is not going to be a huge obstacle and can be addressed very well with all of the strategies mentioned. Rate deserves a closer look and more intensive intervention if 1) a student’s rate is so slow that it seems to tax short-term memory and impact comprehension, 2) it is a function of serious word recognition and decoding difficulties, which will only continue to pose challenges in college, and/or 3) the rate is so slow that meeting the quantity demands of a college reading load is compromised.

Gabb cautioned that "fluency does not mean speed, but rather the capacity to attend in order to comprehend." She shared an approach she has used for working on fluency and comprehension. Students work in groups, read selections silently, then aloud to each other practicing ‘passionate reading.’  Then one team member is nominated to read to the class. The team is also responsible for writing and asking the class three comprehension questions based on the reading.

Topic 4: Assessment

Strucker noted that no descriptive studies similar to the Adult Reading Components Study have been done on the reading strengths and needs of the transition population. As a result, many transition and community college teachers are not aware of their students’ serious needs in the areas of fluency and vocabulary.  He suggested that transition programs assess their learners in word reading (a proxy for fluency) and oral vocabulary. Those who wish to try this approach can make use of the free tests available on the ASRP Web site: (word recognition) and (oral vocabulary).

Topic 5: Technology

Several participants posted ideas and questions about assistive technology for transition learners with severe word reading problems. Capotosto reported that she has used text-to-speech software and recordings for the blind.  Gabb suggested Natural Readers free text-to-speech software, and a participant suggested "VoiceOver," which is available under "System Preferences" for MAC operating systems.

In addition to assistive technology, Gabb emphasized the importance of improving the overall technological literacy of transition learners. She reported that instructors at her college have e-learning sites that students are encouraged to check at least weekly. She also suggested taking students on tours of community college computer labs and community access sites such as local libraries. 

For resources and ideas about technological literacy Gabb recommended the website of David Milliron, Deputy Director of Postsecondary Improvement for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  Capotosto suggested a site created by Professor Sarah Garman of Miami Dade College: which contains an impressive resource list of sites for free on-line exercises for a wide variety of reading skills and strategies. 

With regard to general technological literacy, a participant called attention to John Comings’s research on adult learner persistence and his suggestion that adult basic education and transition programs develop online learning to support adults who must drop in and out of their brick-and-mortar programs.  The participant also recommended browsing the recent Virginia Commonwealth University Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World.  

Another participant mentioned PLATO as a learning program that can be used to offset students’ irregular attendance: 

The instructor sets up a series of activities for the students to follow, and they are very user friendly.  Many have a lot of graphics to keep students interested.  The teacher can also set up a PLATO lesson and use an overhead projector to teach a group of students one lesson, for example, reading strategies or vocabulary acquisition.  In addition to English, PLATO has many, many more subjects:  math at all levels, science, [and] lessons specifically for GED students…

With regard to Comings’ suggestion for the need to create more online support for learners, the same participant had this to add:

Taking [Comings’s] words to heart, we have begun this semester to film what we call teaching vignettes-- a ten minute concept for students to review (for our GED and ABE students.) Such stand-alones can be used for many math concepts such as order of operations, many study skills concepts, grammar, and even pre-writing strategies. We hope to post them to our new i-University site or make them available through Blackboard. In addition, I foresee using worksheets to accompany these videos. We hope we can keep students connected by providing them with study materials at home.

Topic 6: Writing

Cynthia Zafft suggested college writing labs as sources of information about what is expected in college writing, e.g.,   Zafft also shared an editing check-list that she has used with transition learners and added these thoughts:

I often have students write a couple of paragraphs on the topic and send it to me.  I usually pick through the kind of formats available at (especially the KWL chart for this activity).  At the moment, I see the writing pieces as a journey with the student, but the current online format makes each activity appear more distinct to the student, I think.

A participant suggested Villanueva’s Cross-Talk in Comp Theoryas a resource on theories of teaching writing. Others pointed to the importance of engagement in writing and the possibility of using learners’ facility with texting as a bridge to more formal writing. 

However, one participant cautioned that we should not forget the importance of asking transition students to write about their reading, including summarizing and writing critical commentary in response to reading assignments, stating, "…we do [transition learners] a disservice if we allow them to ‘just write’ without learning and applying the rules that guide good writing."

In response, Capotosto summarized her thoughts on the issues involved in teaching writing for college:

…there needs to be a balance. I would also add that instruction in complex sentence structures may have the additional benefit of boosting reading comprehension. One reason students may have difficulty understanding a text or section of a text is because they are less familiar with complex grammatical structures that are specific to writing and not common in conversational discourse. We can use reading-writing connections to teach these complex grammatical structures:  providing explicit instruction and then unpacking how authors used a structure (or vice versa using the reading to inform the grammar instruction).

Topic 7: The need to fund transitions courses and professional development for transition educators

Several participants stressed the need for better funding of the programs themselves and professional development (PD) for teachers. One participant made the following point:

[W]e need an increase in the PD set-aside (under a reauthorized Adult Education and Family Literacy Act) to 15% as well as funds to create a full-time adult education workforce for whom intensive and sustained professional development is offered systemically. Our students may transition to the workplace or post-secondary education, but they will only succeed if they have really acquired the skills they need. We can only teach those skills if we have had quality professional development.

A second participant agreed strongly, adding that to make matters worse, too many teachers work part-time and receive no compensation for participating in professional development.   

Zafft added these observations about the funding situation:

I think several folks have worked out the funding, but it takes time to coordinate the funding streams (and may require private funding for some aspect of the development).  For example, several states with K-12 governance have moved to fund transition-level skills.  Maine comes to mind.  Here is their state transition program: There is a link to the MOA they use between the Maine Department of Education and the University and Community College system if you scroll down the page.

Zafft also reminded participants of the importance of numeracy:

Not to change the reading/writing topic but one of the National College Transition Network (NCTW)  Promising Practices discusses a math curriculum developed to span the kind of gap we are talking about [for reading and writing].  It involves adult education centers in Connecticut and includes access to college services.  The college saw it as an important retention strategy, so it was worth their time to collaborate with the K-12 system.

Shared references and resources

The discussion leaders and participants shared references and resources throughout the discussion.  Below are some additional resources that were not embedded in the summary:

  1. Challenges of college course work: David Conley’s framework
  2. Descriptions of the literacy needs of transition learners:
    McShane, S. (2005). Applying Research In Reading Instruction For Adults: First Steps For Teachers;
    Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction
  3. Descriptions of transitions programs/funding sources:
  4. Tests: The College Board site
  5. Strategies for academic success:
  6. Study skills, including goal setting, reading tips, note-taking, and test taking:
  7.; Curtis, M.E. (2006). The Role of Vocabulary Instruction in Adult Basic Education.

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